I haven’t been doing weekly posts about it this series, but I am keeping the HIGNFY gender bias spreadsheet updated – you’ll normally find the updated version of it available on that link by Saturday lunchtime after a show.

The problem is finding something new to say about it after every show, when the figures stay resolutely the same. 23.83% of guests overall (25% this season) and 22.46% of guest hosts have been women, and last week’s show was the 109th one with all-male guests since the last time all the guests were female. Still, we should have the first female host of the season (Mel Giedroyc) next week.

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As the new series of HIGNFY started on Friday, I’ve updated the spreadsheet I created last year about the gender of guests. You can find it by clicking here, and I’ll endeavour to update it every week during this series.

The overall figures remain pretty much as they did through last year – overall 23.49% of guests and 22.83% of guest hosts have been women and you still have to go back to 1997 to find a show where all the guest spots were taken by women. There hasn’t been an all-male show in 2013 yet, though – we men will just have to console ourselves with the 100+ shows that have been all-male since then.

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One of the first books I read this year was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which I’ve found absolutely fascinating. Westen is a clinical psychologist and a supporter of the Democrats in the US, who had been progressively frustrated over a period of years by the party’s inability to fight back against the Republican method of doing politics. In The Political Brain, he sets out to examine politics and political communications from a psychological perspective, and to propose ways in which Democrats can fight back.

Westen’s main hypothesis (as reflected in the book’s subtitle) is that emotion is a key component in successful political communication. One of the reasons Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections was because they didn’t connect emotionally with the American public while George W Bush did. Both men believed that they had the right answers to the questions that faced America, but they were too busy convincing the voters of that case intellectually to make the case emotionally. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited emotional appeals – especially to fear – perfectly, and thus swung the elections their way.

However, Westen isn’t arguing for Democrats to ape the Republicans in fear-mongering and demagoguery. What he does instead is look at significant academic research into how the brain works to explain why certain types of messaging are effective and others aren’t. He doesn’t argue that Democrat policy should change, merely the way that policy is communicated. The book was originally written in 2006, so there’s very little mention of Obama in it, but the point is made effectively in looking at Bill Clinton. Because he could make a powerful emotional connection with voters either through TV or one-on-one, people felt an emotional connection to him they didn’t feel to his opponents or rivals. (One thing I’ve heard in various accounts of people meeting Clinton is that no matter how trivial the encounter, he always gives the impression that listening to that person is the most important thing in the world to him at that moment)

One of Westen’s principal arguments is that the core of any political communication has to be a narrative about the party and/or the candidate, and that while having a list of worthy policies is important, they need to fit into an overall framework. However, that doesn’t mean that just any narrative will do. Westen sets out a set of rules for effective narratives that I think often get missed by people who appear to have read the book. A narrative can’t just be ‘we’re for nice things and against nasty things’ and it shouldn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Any compelling narrative has the structure of a story, and that needs antagonists to work. For instance, Westen points out that the successful Republican narrative in the US relies on demonising a ‘liberal elite’ who want to stop the brave Republicans from making America great again. Westen argues – quite persuasively – that Democrats need to take the fight back to the Republicans, though that doesn’t mean going in the same low vein as them.

In that spirit, he provides notable examples of what defeated Democrat candidates could (and should) have said in some famous circumstances. As he points out, the responses of candidates like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry to attacks on them were factually correct but didn’t connect emotionally. This was originally written and published before the 2008 US election but one key to Obama’s victory then and last year was that he was willing to take the fight to the Republicans.

Westen explains that our brains work by making networks of associations between people, concepts, images and ideas. Political communication needs to activate certain networks to be more effective, and the most effective way to activate networks is through the use of emotion. People are mostly making emotional judgements about candidates and parties based on what they perceive as their narrative long before they make ones based on specific policy points.

What’s also important about the book is that Westen writes as an academic who’s moved into politics, not as a political operative trying to justify his viewpoints and angle for more work. Usually, when he makes a point about the effectiveness or not of certain tactics and language, it’s because there’s evidence to back it up, and his wide knowledge of psychology means he can bring in studies that weren’t explicitly political but have an important bearing on the subject.

I heartily recommend reading The Political Brain to anyone with an interest in politics and political campaigning (and buying it through the link above makes me a few pennies) but it’s also prompted some thoughts on British politics in the light of it. It’s clear that there are people in British politics who’ve read The Political Brain – and some of them have even understood it – but a lot of it hasn’t broken into regular discussion yet.

I was going to take a look at some of Westen’s points and how they relate to British politics in this post, but it’s already getting quite long, and I think they’re best put into a separate post to follow this before it turns into a book in itself.

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Lib Dem Voice have produced a remake of the old ‘where is the British West Wing?’ posts of a few years ago by asking ‘where is the British Borgen?

(The answer to that question is ‘waiting for someone to forget the poor ratings previous dramas about politicians got or for someone to come up with a good story’, by the way)

However, the part that struck me (from Alistair Campbell’s tweet that kicked it off and used repeatedly in the following discussions) is the idea that there aren’t ‘pro-politics’ dramas on British TV. The problem with that belief is that there are lots of incredibly political dramas on British TV, it’s just that they’re not about politicians. Campbell et al believe that ‘politics’ solely relates to ‘what we do’ – usually white men in suits arguing with each other – whereas politics actually covers a much wider range of interactions between people and power.

For instance, Jimmy McGovern’s stories are usually intensely political, showing what effect the system and its policies can have on people, but they rarely feature actual politicians. Spooks – particularly in the early series – often addressed the fundamental political issue of where the balance between liberty and security should be struck, and how dangerous it can be to give the state too much power. Even Holby City and Casualty have regularly shown the effects of changes to NHS policy over the years.

‘Political drama’ does not have to mean ‘drama about politicians’ – indeed, making it about politicians can get in the way of making a political point. The old adage of storytelling and scriptwriting is ‘show, don’t tell’, and a political drama needs to show the effects of the policies it’s looking at. Those effects aren’t normally felt within the corridors of the power (except sometimes changing who gets to walk them) but they are felt outside Whitehall and Parliament. Great storytelling is about great characters and the way they deal with the world around them, and the story of someone dealing with the consequences of a political decision and how it affects their life is normally a much more interesting story to watch than the debates that led up to that policy being enacted.

Politicians forget that they’re just a part of the political process and that their little bubble of process isn’t the entirety of it. Britain has a long and fine tradition of drama that’s pro-politics, and doesn’t flinch from showing the effects policy has on people’s lives. To ignore that, and imagine that politics is only important when it’s about politicians is another reflection of how the practice and the reality of politics are becoming completely separated in this country.

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In the category of ‘small, but annoying, errors’ we have this from the Guardian:

Obama will make history in another way on Monday, becoming the first US president to be sworn in four separate times.

THat should be ‘the first since Franklin Roosevelt’, of course, who got his four inaugurations the old-fashioned way by being elected four times.

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And so the gender balance spreadsheet is up to date for the last time this year. It was a 30% series – 30% of the guests (including 3 out of 10 of the hosts) were women. The overall figures are now that 23.46% of guests and 22.95% of guest hosts have been women. This series had two shows in which all the guests (and hence, the entire panel) were men – the last time all the guests were women was in 1997. There’s never been a post-Angus show with a female host and two female guests, so every show since the series began has featured a majority of men on the panel.

Of course, as women are only 23% of the population, this is entirely right and correct. Maybe if there were more women – perhaps even if they were a majority of the population – these figures might make people think that something was wrong.

Hold on, I’m just being informed that women actually are a majority of the population. It turns out that TV has lied to me again.

But seriously, compiling these figures has been an interesting exercise. I’d looked through the list of HIGNFY episodes before and noted that it did appear to be particularly full of men, but hadn’t realised just how bad it was. Indeed, it’s actually more likely for Ian to win a show (33%) than for a randomly chosen guest to be a woman and yet only one of those is regularly commented on.

I’ve seen some interesting comments from people on these figures. Various men who’ve seen them have tried to justify them in one way or another, often presenting the bizarre argument that ‘women aren’t funny’ as though that was settled fact. It’s odd then, that I can look back at the female guests for this most recent series and think of funny moments for each of them, while there are several men there who may well have been accompanied by Vic Reeves’ tumbleweed for all the laughs they generated. Note too that any woman saying that she doesn’t find most male comedians funny will often be dismissed as a ‘humourless feminist’ while men are free to dismiss all female comedians.

There’s also the argument that somehow because the pool of journalists, politicians, comedians, actors etc that they draw guests from is male-dominated that HIGNFY can’t help but reflect that. That might be true if they were choosing names randomly from a hat, but the producers get to choose their guests, and the results can be clearly seen on screen. For instance, Alexander Armstrong and Kirsty Young are both very good guest hosts, but why has Armstrong done the job 21 times to Young’s 10? There’ve been 42 episodes hosted by women – just one more than the total hosted by Armstrong, Jack Dee or Jeremy Clarkson.

Claiming that HIGNFY is just reflecting the sexism already present in society isn’t much of a defence in my view. As many commenters have pointed out to me, that just ensures it continues to reflect the sexism of society by regularly showing women a world that they’re not deemed to be part of. An all-male panel on HIGNFY or other series is presented as entirely natural and not worthy of comment, while an all-female panel is presented as something so special that it has to be highlighted in the programme name (Loose Women).

It’s also been suggested that it’d be interesting to see similar figures for the representation of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities on the show. I agree, though I’ll pass that task onto someone else because of the time involved, but if you do gather those stats, I’ll happily link to them here – and the same for any other series too. For instance, see A Very Public Sociologist on Question Time.

Thanks to everyone who’s linked to or commented on the statistics over the last few weeks. I’ll update it again next year when the series starts again, but do feel free to remind me about it around April/May when it starts off again.

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And the spreadsheet breaking down Have I Got News guests by gender is now updated. After last night, the figures are now:

  • 29.63% of guests this series, and 23.43% overall, have been women
  • 3 out of 9 guest hosts this season have been women, and 23.08% overall
  • Charlotte Church broke a run of six straight male hosts, though it was the fourth week in a row with at least one female guest
  • There’s one more show in this series (next Friday) and I think after that I might do a post on some of the experiences I have had since I started collecting and publishing this information. It’s been quite interesting to see some of the justifications various men have given for these numbers.

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    I dropped out of the ‘reviewing every book I read habit’ while attempting it last year, and I’m not planning to pick it up. However, I do like writing the occasional book review, and as part of the concerted effort to blog here more often, expect to see the occasional one dotted in amongst the political rants.

    A Dance With Dragons is obviously the fifth book in the series, so if you haven’t read the others yet, be warned that there will be spoilers. If you’re watching Game Of Thrones on TV, then this really will spoil you for stuff that’s coming up in the next season. So if you don’t want to know any more, look away now…

    Read the rest of this entry

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    It’s Saturday morning…

    …and so the Have I Got News For You spreadsheet has been updated again. Amazingly, despite there being two female guests on it last night, the sky hasn’t fallen and I can now report that:

  • 29.17% of guests this season have been women
  • 23.4% of guests overall have been women
  • 22.65% of guest hosts have been women
  • David Mitchell was the sixth male host in a row – the record is ten in a row, set a couple of times near the start of the guest host era
  • You can find the updated version here.

    And if last night’s HIGNFY seemed a little disjointed at points, these tweets from David Mitchell might explain why:

    Sounds like there was some last-minute re-editing going on.

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    Jennie’s already beaten me to it, but I thought I’d share some thoughts on Ad Lib magazine, the party’s replacement for Liberal Democrat News, as it arrived in the post this morning. (I would advise reading Jennie’s post as well, of course – her points about the gender balance of contributors are very important)

    To start off, it turns out that what was advertised as a magazine…isn’t. For me, magazine has certain connotations, and they tend to revolve around it being A4 size, and if it’s smaller than that it’s pretty big and sturdy. This is A5 and 40 pages, so I’m not sure it’s much more than a pamphlet. The point about Liberal Democrat News was that you could conceive of it appearing in a newsagents – this doesn’t give that impression.

    As for the title, I suppose it’s better than going for something like ‘Coalicious’ or some focus group inspired ‘inspirational’ title, but is something that means ‘making it up as you go along’ really the impression the party wants to give? According to the ‘message from the editor’ inside, the answer is that it ‘is an appropriate tone for the magazine to strike’. That’s not an inspirational start, though it might explain what we find inside.

    We start with an interview with Shirley Williams. Well, it’s billed as an interview, but it feels more like ‘a quick chat about the SDP’. There’s nothing new in there, and I can’t see any reason for it to be in there other than someone deciding ‘people like Shirley, so let’s put her in’. Following that, we get three pages of by-election news which read like the same story written four times. Why not just concentrate on one by-election (and perhaps even one where we didn’t win?) and tell a story, give us a feel for the area and what the Lib Dems are doing there, rather than giving us four pieces that could come from anywhere?

    There’s a page on shared parental leave that really feels like it should be more – how did we achieve this? What were the challenges? What will the effects be? – but it’s just a page that reads like a press release. This is a problem that keeps occurring – everything in the magazine feels too shallow. The Nick Clegg interview that follows is the same – it should be an in-depth talk with John Kampfner, but instead it just floats over a lot of the usual topics and then ends. (Though it is the only article in the magazine to mention the Corby by-election – or indeed, any election other than council ones)

    Desert Island (picture of a disc) – as Jennie says, BBC copyright lawyers ahoy! – tells us Tessa Munt’s eight favourite songs. Great, but whenever I’ve listened to the radio programme I’m sure they didn’t take the title and format from, the music is only part of the story. It’s a hook to ask the person involved more about them and what drives them, here it’s just filler for another page.

    The Guardian does an interesting thing in its Saturday edition where they get two people on opposite sides of an issue to talk about it, debating points back and forth. That’s often interesting to read and brings out interesting points, whereas the simplistic ‘Should we ban page 3? Yes or no’ ‘debate’ in Ad Lib doesn’t do anything other than rehash the same old points with no actual interaction.

    The rest of the magazine’s the same – articles that could be interesting just peter out into nothing. There’s an article about how a Lib Dem councillor led the process to boost recycling in Conwy council which is a subject that would interest a lot of people, but after a few paragraphs talking about that goes on to discuss elections and campaigning. The article about the American election descends into a lot of process chatter about election strategy and rather than talk about the content of Nick Clegg’s conference speech, we get an article about how it was written.

    There’s some interesting content in there – Alison McInnes’ article on improving conditions in women’s prisons stands out – but the rest of it just feels hollow, far too reliant on running off to the Lib Dem safe zone of talking about leaflets and door-knocking instead of discussing actual politics or policy. Why is there a page given over to cooking? Why does the upcoming events page only detail events taking place yesterday, today and tomorrow? Even if the magazine had come out a week ago, that would still be far too short a notice for many people to make plans for.

    I’m sure the team behind it are doing their best to put the magazine out while having to do a hundred other things, but that this is how the party chooses to communicate with its members speaks volumes about how the leadership sees us. Some effort and investment could have produced a magazine that people might want to read, or think about passing on to non-Lib Dem friends to show them something of interest. Compare Ad Lib to the magazine I get regularly as an Amnesty member, or the communications organisations like the Woodland Trust send out to their members, and it looks terrible. Did anyone look at other magazines before putting the basic idea of this together? I subscribe to New Humanist magazine, which can’t have that huge a subscriber base, but they manage to put together a vibrant and interesting magazine that gets read, noticed and talked about. Ad Lib feels like something that’s not going to hang about long on the journey from letterbox to recycling.

    The idea of having to pay an extra £35 a year to get this sent to me monthly is something I’m not contemplating. If members are going to get two issues a year automatically, that’s asking for £3.50 an issue which doesn’t feel anything like value for money, especially when a year of Liberator‘s just £25.

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